As a kid, Joseph Hemp V would stand on a step stool next to the stove to help make Sunday breakfast, his family's breakfast. In the summer, he'd tend his grandmother's vegetable garden -- and dutifully eat the vegetables that she'd just plucked straight from the ground.
Was Hemp destined to become a chef? Maybe, though the course he took to his current position at the popular wine bar and restaurant Robust (227 West Lockwood Avenue, Webster Groves; 314-963-0033) and its new downtown outpost (635 Washington Avenue; 314-287-6300), was a long one. It took him to hotels and country clubs and some of the best restaurants in St. Louis; it included two stints in culinary school -- the second necessary after the first ended with his being kicked out.
Hemp and I met at the downtown Robust this week to discuss his journey as a chef (read more about that path here), why you should smile while you cook and why you should give new restaurants a chance to get it together before you lambaste them online.
What were your favorite foods growing up? Breakfast I always loved. Things with eggs -- even if it was lunchtime. It's a bit white-trashy, but my grandma would have me fry bologna till it curled up, and then in the cup put an egg in there, and let that cook itself, and then make a sloppy sandwich out of that.
What's a typical meal at home for you? Sunday is the one day of the week where everybody's off in the house -- my wife and the kids, we're all there. Monday is the chef's day [off], so it's also the only day we don't have sitters for the kids, so it's my day at the house to relax.
Sunday nights, my in-laws do Sunday dinner. It's one of the things that really drew me into that family: Every Sunday they're having dinner together. On the Sundays that [my mother-in-law] doesn't cook, then usually we don't do anything crazy. There's a really old Chinese restaurant down the street from my house, or there's a really nice pizza place up by my kids' school that we like to go to.
We try to stay away from as much processed food for the kids as we can, but it's incredibly hard when we both work as much as we do. We've been doing a lot of vegetable curries and rice. I really like the fact there's a shit ton of flavors in it and that I don't need all the meat in there to make it shine, just some spices and some good vegetables. But then again, since the weather's been warming up, I've also just been going and buying a couple of steaks and sitting out back. The kids can play, I can barbecue and enjoy the day.
What's on top of your pizza? If I do it myself, it'd be blue cheese, mozzarella, bacon and chile flakes.
What's your drink of choice? I've been fancying manhattans lately. The entire time I spent at Taste, I wasted it on the fact I could drink gin, but couldn't stand bourbon or any other spirit. [Hemp asked Taste mixologist extraordinaire Ted Kilgore to help him expand his spirits palate.] Slowly, I started with rye -- I could drink rye faster than I could drink bourbon -- now it's to the point, rye or bourbon on the rocks, I can appreciate every little part of it. Manhattan's just been the way I've been doing it [lately].
What are your favorite St. Louis restaurants, not counting your own? If money is no object, I really love what they're doing at Little Country Gentleman right now. Mike [Randolph] and Dale [Beauchamp] are just knocking it out of the park over there. [The first time I went], they ended up coursing us the grand tasting menu intead of the six courses [we'd ordered]. We tried. I died at ten courses. [My wife] was done by six or seven. It was the greatest meal I've had in a long time.
Any time I can, even if it's just for a plate or two, I'll go in [Little Country Gentleman] and grab something. They did this kale soup over the winter, kale three ways: puréed kale, fried kale and braised kale, it was the greatest fucking thing I've had in forever.
Keeping it simple, I like to go to Mai Lee. Qui Tran is amazing. He's an awesome, awesome guy. He's such a humble, awesome guy. Last week, I was sick. I went there and got some pho. Everything's right as rain.
Which St. Louis chef most impresses you? Kevin Nashan over at Sidney Street Café. Mike Randolph. Gerard Craft. Gerard's crew, everyone in that family is great at what they do, and they're in their positions for that very reason. Brian Moxy [Pastaria] is a rock star. Nate Hereford [Niche] is phenomenal.
What Lou Rook [Annie Gunn's] taught me is what I've tried to keep as my mantra: simple food done well. There wasn't anything crazy about Lou's plates. It was all starch, veg, protein -- always the same so you could pump out 400 a night, no problems. But it was always quality food, the greatest things of the season. He taught me how to make pickles and chutneys to make that season last even longer.
The most essential ingredient in your kitchen? Salt. Thyme is good. The herb and the actual thing of counting your minutes and keeping attention.
And a good attitude probably. You cook happy, it shows on your plates. Annie Gunn's taught me: Cooking 400 covers a night, you did it with a smile on your face, and you had fun doing it. You could mentally maintain your grill and still have a good time. Attitude is very important. If you're grumpy about something form home, it's going to show on your plate.
An ingredient you'll never allow in your kitchen? I'll try everything once. I've been surprised by ingredients that I thought were going to be disgusting and then I learned to like. Kim chi: smells like rotten shit, but you can eat it and taste it, and it's completely outside what it smells like.
Favorite kitchen tool? I would use my tongs for everything until I started working in the Craft houses, and then that big heavy Gray Kunz spoon became my go-to tool for everything. It fits nicely in your hand; it holds 2.5 ounces. Everything about it is made for [chefs]. If I don't have my tongs or that spoon, then a kitchen towel is the next thing that's going to be in my hand.
Favorite cookbook? It's like picking my favorite kid. I would say out of all my cookbooks -- I have the Kellers, I have the big books, the coffee-table ones -- I really like Au Pied de Cochon and Joe Beef [both Montreal restaurants], because it's hearty wintertime food. That's what I really like more than anything else. Can't cook it year-round, but I love looking at those pictures, trying to find a way to manipulate it to make it work down here.
Any advice or a favorite tip for the home cook? Every time I go somewhere and someone cooks for me, they always want to say it's not going to be as good as a restaurant. But if I'm not cooking, and I'm at home, and someone's cooking from scratch for me, that's going to taste ten times better than anything I can make. Heart and soul goes a long way. Home cooks need to realize, yeah, they're not professionally trained, but that doesn't make them bad cooks. Cooking at home should be fun, you shold enjoy what you're doing, eat it taste it, have fun.
What does St. Louis need more of? We have a lot of great chefs here doing great things. We need a lot less people criticizing it on Yelp or any type of website. You should be able to go out to a restaurant and critique it and say if you like something. That's what everybody else does. But there's certain levels that people need to understand that if they've never worked in a restaurant or been around it, they shouldn't critique.
People need to, especially with a brand-new restaurant, let them cut their teeth. Let them get a chance to get their shit in order. You've got to open a restaurant fast because you're spending money on overhead before you open. You want to have everything perfect, but sometimes you have to open with the intention of finishing some things later. There needs to be more understanding by a lot of people that critqiue restaurants that it is going to take time to get everything perfect.
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